UGA’s outside linebackers group ready to ‘wreak havoc this season,’ Azeez Ojulari says
The outside linebacker group was not the strong point of Georgia’s defense in 2018.
The unit fell short of expectations and failed to live up to the “Wolfpack” nickname that has been bestowed on the outside linebackers in recent years. But this season, behind a deep and versatile group of edge defenders, the Bulldogs believe things will be different.
Georgia lost 2018 leading sacker D’Andre Walker to graduation, and former five-star recruit Brenton Cox left the program earlier this month. That leaves the Bulldogs with just two outside linebackers — Robert Beal and Adam Anderson — who recorded sacks last year.
However, in addition to Anderson and Beal, Georgia returns junior Walter Grant and redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari, in addition to five-star freshman Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson, the top junior college recruit in the country a season ago.
At his first fall press conference on Aug. 2, head coach Kirby Smart noted the depth present at the edge position. However, he also mentioned that the returning players were on a unit that didn’t exactly excel in 2018.
The Bulldogs recorded 24 sacks in 14 games last season, tied for 100th in the nation in sacks per game. While not entirely the fault of the outside linebackers, Georgia also ranked 114th in the country in team tackles for loss per game in 2018 with 4.6.
“We have to improve some production and create some ways for those guys to take advantage of their skill set which is fast, big, where we’ve got to get rush,” Smart said. “The bottom line is, we don’t get the rush, it doesn’t matter what we do.”
The edge players are specifically under the tutelage of new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning, who was the Bulldogs’ outside linebacker coach in 2018.
When he met with the media on Aug. 5, Lanning said he believes the players take on the mentality of their coach. With that in mind, he wants to coach his players with the same passion he expects from them on the field.
Lanning has already seen some of that passion from Smith, the top player in the Class of 2019 according to the 247Sports Composite.
“I don’t know if you guys know it’s Shark Week,” Lanning said on Aug. 5, “But Nolan Smith, we’re calling him Hammerhead now, the way he likes collision runs.”
Smith is just one player in a group that’s one of the deepest units on the team. So deep, in fact, that Smart has to get creative with how to get them all on the field.
“Sometimes we get two of them in regular, but not a lot of people play regular anymore,” Smart said. “We sometimes get two of them on third down… It’s probably the most underutilized position because they have to take more snaps on special teams.”
The group doesn’t just have depth, but talent too.
Smith and Johnson were both highly-touted recruits, the former from high school and the latter from junior college.
Lanning described Smith as a young player that’s extremely bright and eager to learn.
“He’s one of those guys that signed the signing day papers and then the next day is like, ‘Coach, where’s my playbook at?’” Lanning said.
Johnson, meanwhile, is someone that Lanning had his eye on dating back to his days on the staff at Memphis. He couldn’t recruit him back then, but once he came to Georgia Johnson was one of the first players he went after.
As for the rest of the group, Anderson, Beal, Grant and Ojulari were all at least four-star recruits in their own right.
But what makes the potential of this group so high isn’t just the depth or the talent. It’s also the versatility.
“We have a bunch of different dudes that can do a bunch of different things,” junior inside linebacker Monty Rice said. “For our third down packages if we need this kind of guy to do what Lorenzo (Carter) used to do and spot the quarterback then that is an Adam (Anderson) type thing, but really all of them can do it.”
Ojulari agreed, saying the group is ready to “wreak havoc” in 2019. When the lights come on in Nashville against Vanderbilt on Aug. 31, he knows the Bulldogs on the edge will be ready.
“We’ve just got guys that can go, that can rush, that can do whatever, that are just so valuable,” Ojulari said. “They’re just ready to play and ball.”